part 3: charlie

She looked over her shoulder at the opposite platform as an outbound train arrived. The passengers all had their heads bowed as if in prayer — prayer to their phones, e-readers and other gadgets, and, perhaps, also to books.

A neat grey coat caught her attention. A memory returned to her like a beacon emerging through fog.

No, she told herself, it couldn’t be him. The man she knew didn’t live here. 

He looked up as the train pulled away — maybe he had felt her gaze on him — and she saw with certainty that he wasn’t the man she knew. The grey coat from her memory belonged to a man with dark, almost black eyes. He was a man from her hometown.

She had a theory that those who appear happiest and most cheerful to those around them also often held the greatest sadness deep within them. She told him this theory. He looked at her quizzically but there was also something defensive in his eyes. They were at a cafe — the third date. She inhaled, exhaled, waiting for him to respond, wishing she hadn’t mentioned her theory.

He chuckled, picked up his coffee and took a sip. She relaxed.

They first met through a chain of mutual friends at a New Year’s Eve event. She already knew his story: full of alcoholism, failed suicide attempts and, lastly, reformation. At least, that’s what she’d been told.

Even then, his attire had been monochromatic. Grey was his colour of choice, he claimed, because he was too bashful to wear reds and greens and yellows. He couldn’t stand standing out. If he wore a coloured shirt, it was often accompanied by a grey coat.

He asked her if she already knew of his tumultuous past — if she’d heard all the rumours. It wasn’t so much a question as an assumption confirmed by the sympathy in her eyes. He told her the rumours were true. If they were the same rumours he’d heard, they were true. He smiled, and in his wry smile, and in his dark eyes, she saw not a kindred spirit but a kindred soul.

Conversation flowed easily, fluidly between them. She told him things that she’d never told anyone else before. They gave each other comfort, reassurance, compassion and understanding. The connection was undeniable. He held her hand and told her that he’d never let her go. She squeezed his hand in return, both believing it to be the only truth, and fearing that it was the one promise he could never keep.

Eventually, however, he began to fall. He relapsed. It started with a drink, followed by a lie — a lie as much to himself as it was to her. But he did not let her go. And she did not let him go; she tried to pull him back up.

Their relationship became as a leaf blown about by the wind — at once uplifted, soaring, and then suddenly spiralling downward, only to be buoyed again by a fresh current. Still, even as the highs and lows became more unpredictable and uncontrollable, they held on to each other.

But his grip was weakening. She could feel him slipping away.

One night, he told her that he needed space. He got in his car and drove away. She didn’t see him again until the next morning — on the morning news report: three dead, one critically injured in a tragic head-on collision.

She watched the outbound train depart and disappear into the tunnel. He didn’t live here — he didn’t live in this world anymore — but the memory of him still stung her eyes and made her breath catch in her throat.

Her devastation reminded her that she was human, that she was alive. She wished he could have held on.

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